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Here is something that may shock you. It certainly shocked me. One in five female athletes is battling an eating disorder.
Of the 61 sportswomen already selected to represent GB at London 2012, research suggests at least 12 of them endure a difficult relationship with food. When they look in the mirror they do not see what the rest of us see: toned, athletic bodies primed to compete with the best.
The numbers are staggering. We associate these high achievers with the peak of physical health, but is it any wonder when the poster girl for the home Olympics, Jessica Ennis, is labelled ‘fat’ by a ‘high-ranking’ person at UK Athletics?
Or when British Weightlifting suspend Commonwealth bronze medallist Zoe Smith’s funding after releasing a statement saying she was ‘overweight’?
Smith was a 16-year-old schoolgirl at the time, but the pressure to be successful and skinny has no regard for age. The sickening feeling is we want our sportswomen to win things, but it helps if they look good doing it, too.
Former world Under 23 triathlon champion Hollie Avil has quit the sport aged 22, after bravely discussing her fight against an eating disorder and depression.
She believes problems stemmed from a coach’s comment during the 2006 Junior World Championships.
“You’ll need to start thinking about your weight if you want to run quick, Hollie,” he said.
I remember my younger sister coming back from a regional netball training camp when she was 14, overloaded with information about nutrition with instructions to keep a ‘food diary’. It was too much and she decided never to go back. A friend at university joked I should give up rowing (not that I was any good anyway) in case my “arms got too big”.
Ennis laughs about her “big butt” and told me she found it difficult when she realised athletes “look different from your normal Joe Public”.
This should be a positive, but it is easy to see how repeated experiences like this could sow negative, potentially dangerous, thoughts about body image.
Professor Caroline Meyer, director of the Loughborough University Centre for Research into Eating Disorders, said: “It’s like a seed bed of underlying characteristics that gets watered by those words. They trigger a pre-occupation with weight, which can have a major impact on the athlete’s self-esteem and subsequent eating.
“I don’t think sport ever triggers an eating disorder – in terms of self-esteem and social networks it’s a good thing – but there are some increased risk factors with sport. Some of the risk factors for eating disorders, such as high levels of perfectionism or obsessive-type personality traits, are more prominent in athletes.”
Elite sportswomen are twice as likely as non- athletes to have problems with eating. It is more common in sports with weight categories, like rowing or martial arts; aesthetic disciplines such as figure-skating and gymnastics where lots of the body is on display; or sports which promote a belief that being skinny will enhance your performance, such as triathlon or swimming.
Yet the area is still a real taboo.
Funding for treatment and education is scarce and many athletes and coaches simply do not know what to do. This is particularly worrying because identifying unusual eating patterns early is crucial in trying to rectify them.
Not calling one of our finest sportswomen ‘fat’ would be a good start.
lIf you are affected by any of these issues, support is available via Beat.co.uk and Loughborough University Centre for Research into Eating Disorders.
Four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington chronicled her fight against anorexia and bulimia in her autobiography, A Life Without Limits.
She wrote: “I’m a control freak, basically... There has always been that little voice in my head urging me on to some notion of perfection, urging me to retain control over myself...For me, anything short of perfection is weakness.”
This fiercely intelligent woman competes in the toughest event of them all – swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and then running a marathon in around two hours 45 minutes – but her battle to beat her body provides an even more absorbing and inspiring tale. – Daily Mail